THE ELEPHANT MAN – Bristol Old Vic


5*****

28 June 2018

In his programme note, Director Lee Lyford tells of why he wanted to mount a production of ‘The Elephant Man’. Usually, the part of John Merrick is seen as a challenge for an actor without disability. What of those actors who are disabled? Couldn’t they be given an opportunity to represent themselves on stage? In this production, the part of Merrick is played by Jamie Beddard who has cerebral palsy and, after seeing this version of the excellent play by Bernard Pomerance, I would find it difficult to see a conventional production again.

This is the story of John Merrick, born in the 1850s with hideous bodily deformities and who became part of a circus freakshow before being taken under the wing of a doctor from the London Hospital and becoming a society celebrity. It’s an extraordinary story and Pomerance provides a fascinating insight into Victorian attitudes to many things, not least disability. Today, we are exposed to more disabled people through events such as the Paralympics and disability awareness campaigns, and we are far less shocked than our forebears. Pomerance also looks at various arguments through the story-telling. Church vs Medicine. Hospital Funding. The needs of the majority over the needs of the individual. The conflict between ambition and practicality. The exploitation of the disadvantaged. I could go on. It is packed with issues.

The play is beautifully presented. With scenes free-flowing from one to another with imaginatively displayed ‘chapter headings’ – on sheets, curtains, suitcases, a blackboard. The set is cleverly designed by Caitlin Abbott to provide the necessary movement. Three screens high above the stage show beautifully designed (by Emily Leonard) captions of every word and relevant pictures. The artwork for the circus posters is perfect as are the props and costumes – designed by Stavri Papa with a palate of browns and creams and blacks and a startling deep crimson for Mrs Kendall. The lighting is exemplary and atmospheric, added to careful use of sound. A loan cellist (Keith Tempest) sits quietly at the side of the stage and counterpoints the action with exquisitely played and carefully chosen pieces of music.

The actors are universally excellent. The lions part is that of the idealist doctor, Frederick Treves, played with great authority, compassion and vulnerability by Alex Wilson – he is very impressive. Likewise, Gráinne O’Mahony who brings huge warmth and joie de vivre to the part of Mrs Kendall, the actress who befriends Merrick, before taking things maybe too far in the eyes of Treves. As Merrick, Jamie Beddard brings all his experience to the role, his frustration at his treatment and condition, his sensitivity and love of beauty and his deep vulnerability come across in spades. His reaction to the touch of a beautiful woman at the end of the first half is utterly heart-breaking. As the play went on I found myself tuning into his speech and not reliant on the surtitles. It was a first class performance. The use of an electric wheelchair – seemingly very anachronistic never bothered me in the slightest.

Two key moments stand out. The first sight of Merrick in his wheelchair, wearing only shorts, manhandled by hospital staff as Treves gives a lecture on his condition is almost difficult to watch for its seeming disregard for Merrick as a human. Later in the play a reflection of the scene is shown in a dream sequence where Merrick is the lecturer and Treves the one pulled this way and that. A sort of, ‘how would you like it?’ scenario.

The other moment is the breakdown of Treves. Constrained, by convention and Victorian values, he can never equate helping those who bring illness on themselves by excess and can pay for treatment with his desire to help those who cannot help themselves or receive the medication they deserve. The counterpoint to this is the freedom Merrick somehow has gained which leads him to take the decision to die. It is affecting and so relevant in the world we live in today.

This production is a collaboration between the Bristol Old Vic, the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School – whose students provided much of the technical and backstage team – and Diverse City (of which Jamie Beddard is Co-Artistic Director), set up in 2006 and committed to equality and diversity in the arts. This partnership with this production is an utter triumph.

I have seen a number of productions of ‘The Elephant Man’ and, indeed, appeared in it myself, but I cannot recall such a perfectly presented, powerful and sensitive one. Lee Lyford and his very talented team have produced something very special.

As much as possible was done to make this an accessible piece of theatre and it is so very impressive on that score, providing the audience with much to consider, digest and enjoy. It is a profoundly moving play and here is seen as a relevant, challenging and enlightening piece of theatre. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


CAST & CREATIVES

JAMIE BEDDARD – JOHN MERRICK

STEPHANIE BOOTH – COUNTESS/PINHEAD

MICKY DARTFORD – ROSS

MAX DINNEN – BISHOP HOW

GERALD GYIMAH – CARR-GOMM

GRÁINNE O’MAHONY – MRS KENDALL

MADELEINE SCHOFIELD – DUCHESS/PINHEAD

CHARLIE SUFF – SNORK/LORD JOHN

LIYAH SUMMERS – PRINCESS ALEXANDRA/PINHEAD

ALEX WILSON – FREDERICK TREVES

KEITH TEMPEST – CELLIST


DIRECTOR – LEE LYFORD

SET DESIGN – CAITLIN ABBOTT

COSTUME DESIGN – STAVRI PAPA

LIGHTING & VIDEO DESIGN – ZIGGY JACOBS

SOUND DESIGN/COMPOSER/MD – ADRIENNE QUARTLY

AV/IMAGE & GRAPHIC/CAPTION DESIGNER – EMILY LEONARD

STAGE MANAGER – AIDA BOURDIS

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